Tuesday, April 19, 2005

On Habemus-ing a new Papam

Or, Il Papa's got a brand-new bag

Okay, so the conclave has ended, the white smoke has wafted, the bells have rung, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany has ascended to the papal throne as Pope Benedict XVI. And while it's probably too early for me to try and sort out my feelings on the whole thing, I'm going to go ahead and blog in haste, that I might repent in leisure.

I had big hopes for this papal election. I'll confess to having hung more weight on the election than was probably due; I'd really consigned my future as a Catholic to the new pope. Without going too much into what is really a very personal subject, I've been struggling with my faith for quite some time, with questions of how my beliefs matched those of the church, whether it's better to be a bad Catholic or a good non-Catholic, whether clinging to my faith and hoping for the church to change to fit my needs is really fair to anyone. And while I thought that Pope John Paul II was a great Pope, and I hardly blamed him personally for my own religious issues, I thought that the election of the new Pope might give me some kind of sign as to the direction of the church and my own place therein.

For the record, I still don't know.

I'm going to give Pope Benedict XVI a chance - it's only fair. It has been suggested that his selection of the name Benedict might, in fact, indicate a desire to follow Benedict XV's more moderate approach to the papacy following the serious doctrinal fundamentalism of Pius X before him.

But then there's also Cardinal Ratzinger's homily on Monday, decrying "threats to the faith" such as liberalism, atheism, agnosticism and relativism. And while I agree that (in his words) "having clear faith based on the creed of the church" is a good thing, I also think that a wholesale condemnation of ideologies like liberalism could undo all of the good that JPII's socially progressive reign had enacted, and that it could be a sign of Benedict XVI's devotion to the harsh, impersonal, condemnatory church of the past.

The new Pope faces a world quite unlike that of the old church that he loved so much. He has, as cardinal, failed to address issues such as the priest sex scandals. AIDS runs rampant in Africa, but the church stubbornly refuses to relax its rigid condemnation of birth control. And through it all, vocations are consistenly dropping, threatening the ranks of the priesthood.

Past performance indicates that Benedict XVI might not be the man to preserve the church in this new time. Even though JPII had made serious headway into the idea of "one true church" that has divided Christians for so long, Ratzinger kept German Catholics and Lutherans from taking communion together at a gathering in 2003. Many German Catholics say that that kind of fundamentalist dogmatism is just par for his theological course.

It's far, far too early to judge this Pope's potential, or to guess what will become of the church in the future. As I said, I have to give him a chance. But in this increasingly crazy global climate, a strong but compassionate Pope is needed to reuinte a disparate church and use his considerable influence to help bring the world closer to peace, or at least to understanding. Jesus Christ preached love, compassion and charity. He hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes. The former Cardinal Ratzinger has said that the new Pope should want to emulate Jesus as closely as possible; I hope that those are the qualities he emulates.

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